Fresh out of high school in 2022, Grace Koehler began a welding apprenticeship at Agra Industries, an agricultural manufacturing firm in her hometown of Merrill, Wisconsin. 

A proud third-generation daughter of tradesmen and an incoming student at NorthCentral Technical College, she was ready to embrace her role with confidence, despite being the only woman at her firm. But she quickly learned that at Agra, inappropriate comments from her male counterparts and harassment in the form of pranks were simply a part of the job. Koehler recalls it was common for her to go on break and return to her workstation to find things taken and moved around, or lotion in her gloves.

“The thing about being 18 years old in that environment is that you’re not off-limits anymore — that’s how it is,” she said. “That place was crude. It was very crude.”

Agra Industries did not respond to requests to comment. 

Stories like Koehler’s point to an ongoing problem in the industry. Manufacturers are grappling with a severe labor shortage that experts and recruiters alike agree can’t be remedied without more women joining the industry. Currently, manufacturing is facing a looming threat of 2.1 million unfulfilled jobs by 2030; the cost of those missing jobs could potentially total $1 trillion in 2030 alone. 

Research from The Manufacturing Institute has found that embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion policies can help manufacturers attract and retain talent that will aid in bridging the widening skills gap. 

“We can’t make meaningful progress toward filling those jobs without closing the gender gap,” said TMI President Carolyn Lee in a 2022 press release.

To address this, TMI’s Women MAKE initiative launched the 35x30 campaign in March 2022, aiming to increase the percentage of women in manufacturing to 35% by 2030, from 29% today. The campaign seeks to address the growing talent shortage in the industry by creating a nationwide movement to change industry perceptions by collaborating with companies on strategies to attract and retain women. 

Yet, as examples like Koehler's show, there are still significant barriers for women in the industry. And while the industry has been talking about recruiting women for a long time, it has instead seen the share of women flatline or even fall.

But there are still some reasons for optimism in these efforts. A 2021 report by the AAUW addressed women’s retention efforts in the industry. Lauren Haumesser, a head researcher on the report, said despite the perceived setbacks of women in the male-dominated industry - some companies were effectively integrating new programs. 

“Something I found interesting was the importance of women's membership in (women’s) unions for their l satisfaction at work and their feeling of feeling supported and equal in their jobs,” Hausmesser said. “That did have an impact.”

Koehler eventually moved to another company, Schutte Metals. She was still one of the few women in the office, but the culture was different this time. 

“You can tell you know, by leadership if they value everybody's opinion or if the patriarchy is still there,” she said. “It’s all about finding the right fit (as a woman) because not everywhere is a good fit.” 

Isabell Powell, the National Director of Women’s Engagement at the Manufacturing Institute. says that currently, women are the largest untapped talent pool for the manufacturing sector. In her role based in Charlotte, North Carolina, she connects with companies to share best practices for recruiting and retaining women.  

“Our studies show that if we can increase the number of women in the sector by 10%, we'll close 50% of the talent gap,” said Powell. 

In a study with Deloitte, TMI found that the four biggest barriers for women in the industry are lack of affordable and sustainable childcare, flexible options such as hybrid work, female role models, and career path or trajectory. 

“If you can't see it, you don't think you can be it,” Powell said. 

A separate 2022 study by TMI found in a survey that of the 40.9% of companies that had a formal mentoring program, 78.1% said it had been beneficial to advancing women's careers in manufacturing.

Ashley Gately, who currently works as an Associate Procurement Program Manager at Trane Technologies, was a paralegal before entering the industry. She says a job in the manufacturing sector wouldn’t have been on her radar as a possibility without the encouragement of her female peers. 

“The reason I got in the door was other women suggesting, ‘Hey, this isn't a traditional path for you, but a lot of the skills are transferable,’” Gately said. 

Still, while organizations like TMI  are working closely with companies to institute women-focused programs, harassment of all forms may be overshadowing these efforts, and hindering retention for the women who do find their way to these roles. 

Gately recalls a trip to a factory in Vietnam while working in her first industry role at Ashley Furniture. Gately and her team of mostly women were barred from entering the facility which they were supposed to inspect. “They wouldn’t even look at us,” she recalled. 

Her group was accompanied by one male team member, whom the factory manager solely acknowledged during the duration of the visit. 

“He would sit turned away from us and have a conversation with him (the male team member),” Gately said. “So our male team member would have to repeat the questions that we were asking because he would not even acknowledge us being in the room.” 

Sexual harassment is also widespread in the manufacturing industry. A survey by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that women working in manufacturing are far more likely to experience sexual harassment than those in women-dominated or even gender-equal sectors. Out of the women surveyed, 68.2% of women of color and 62.6% of white women reported experiencing some form of harassment at their workplace.

In TMI's 2022 report, they asked companies what steps they had taken to address women’s workplace challenges. 60.53% of respondents selected "Held harassment training(s) in response."

The report stressed that demonstrating zero tolerance for harassment is essential for women to feel safe at their company.

Both Koehler and Gately cited Women in Manufacturing as a positive resource they have leaned on throughout their careers. The organization, which refers to itself on its website as “the only national and global trade association dedicated to providing year-round support to women who have chosen a career in the manufacturing industry,” is one that companies like Trane Technologies are encouraging women to join upon hiring. 

While programs like the Manufacturing Institute's 35x30 campaign are crucial in attracting and retaining women in the manufacturing industry, it is clear that there is still a long way to go as these deep-rooted challenges still stand. 

Now Koehler, who graduates with her welding degree in less than a week, is taking a step back from the factory floor, and using her degree to start her new path as a tech-ed teacher where she’ll teach welding to future students like herself. Despite the industry’s challenges - she remains hopeful for a better future. 

“I think there will be a lot of change in my lifetime,” she said.